TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- The Florida House voted overwhelmingly Monday to speed up the residential mortgage foreclosure process in a state that was swamped by a rising number of homes taken back by banks during the housing crisis.
Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, said her bill preserves due-process rights for distressed homeowners while trying to stimulate Florida's real-estate market by getting foreclosed property "back into the stream of commerce."
The measure (HB 87) passed on an 87-26 vote but its fate is uncertain. The Senate is considering similar legislation as Florida lawmakers face a Friday deadline to pass bills in their 60-day session.
The Sunshine State was one of the hardest hit by the national collapse in the real estate market that began in 2008. Those foreclosure cases quickly swamped an already overworked court system.
"Until we do something regarding the foreclosure issue in this state, lenders will continue to be hurt, borrowers will continue to be hurt and the economy of the state of Florida will continue to be hurt," said Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville.
The legislation would make banks prove in more detail that they own a mortgage or explain why they can't prove ownership. It also creates a process for others besides mortgage-holders to ask the court to speed up foreclosure cases.
Another key provision would reduce the statute of limitations, or amount of time, for banks to go after foreclosed homeowners on deficiency judgments — from five years to one year. Deficiencies are the difference between the money obtained from selling a foreclosed home and what the original homeowner still owes on it.
The measure also would allow senior, or semi-retired, judges to hear foreclosure matters to relieve the backlog of cases.
Opponents said the proposal is tilted against troubled homeowners already being hounded by banks and their attorneys.
"For many of us, the purchase of a home is the most significant financial investment we'll ever make," said Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami. "It's where we raise our kids. And I think we have to be extremely careful in regulating foreclosure. Many of these provisions go too far."
Other critics warned the bill doesn't provide enough safeguards for homeowners who were wrongly foreclosed on.
Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, spoke up for the bill. He said it seeks to help those homeowners who are struggling to pay their mortgages but are surrounded by foreclosed homes, a situation that drives down neighborhood property values.
"Where is the relief for those people who are sitting in their houses under water on their mortgage begging for relief?" he said. "This foreclosure problem cannot go on for the next five, six, seven years. We must provide relief to those people who are in their homes."
The debate comes amid signs that the nation's foreclosure crisis is abating amid an improving housing market.
The number of U.S. homes repossessed by lenders last month fell to the lowest level in more than five years. While some states still saw increases in homes taken back by banks, nationally home repossessions fell 3 percent in March from the previous month and were down 21 percent from a year earlier, foreclosure listing firm RealtyTrac Inc. said recently.